Why Your Web Series Needs Contracts
Stareable’s Guide to Creating a Show (Part 6)
Filmmaking, especially at the indie level, is a largely unglamorous process. There are glamorous aspects, of course: hearing your words read aloud and performed by talented actors, the thrill of a well-composed shot that raises the value of the entire project, and your first film festival acceptance email. But this step in the process, focusing on cast and crew contracts, is not one of those. It is, however, one of the most important and vital things you will hate to do.
Stareable recently published a great article from an actual lawyer about all the legal considerations you should keep in mind when writing up contracts. For this column, I, a non-lawyer whose mother really wanted her to be a lawyer, will give you a pragmatic perspective based in experience, not legal expertise.
The first thing you need to know is that, regardless of whether you are paying people, you need a contract signed (and backed up in two places) from every member of your team, even if they only work a single day. Not because your friends are going to take advantage of you or because people are basically rotten, but because you cannot expect other people to take your project as seriously as you do, especially without significant monetary compensation. As such, their thought process is different than yours, and you’re going to want to be as clear as possible about what is expected of them.
Every good web series or indie film contract should have at LEAST the following:
Clear and reasonable expectations and responsibilities
If they’re an actor, how many episodes are they acting in, how many shooting days will that require, and how long can you require them to be on set per shooting day? If they’re crew, same questions, plus how long will you need them on set before and after filming wraps? Are they expected to get there earlier than the actors and stay after the day is done to break down equipment? Write down, in as specific wording as possible, everything they could conceivably be expected to do. It sounds inane, because it is, but these sorts of things will save your butt down the line if something goes wrong.
Furthermore, what about after principal filming is over? Is there flexibility if you need a reshoot, or if a day takes longer than expected and needs to be split up into two? How about ADR sessions, or additional dialog recording, for when you just need them to record a few lines of dialog later? Will you be filming promotional videos with them, to hype up the season? Do they need to be involved in your crowdfunding campaign, and if so, what level of involvement is needed? Does one of the perks involve work on their part, are they in the initial pitch video, or do they need to be in a fundraising live-stream? All of these questions and contingencies need to get decided, otherwise they have free reign to say “it’s not in my contract, so I’m not doing it.” They probably won’t, but you never know, and that’s the point of a contract. It’s preventative.
If you can pay your cast and crew, this is where you outline exactly how much, as well as if it’s a flat fee, if it’s based on how many shooting days they’re participating in, or some other equation. You can also opt to “defer” payment, meaning that your cast and crew agree to wait for payment until the production makes x in profits from the project, at which time they’ll receive a pre-agreed-upon rate.
More than likely, though, you’re broke, because you’re self-producing a web series and we’re all broke. At least you’re in good company! In this case, even deferring payment might not be an option, but you still need to offer something. Sometimes the compensation for work will be as simple as craft services (on-set food) and IMDb credit, but you still need to outline that. “For the work agreed upon in the previous section, you will receive x by [date]”
Once the web series is completed, where does it go? Are you considering approaching distributors or are you uploading directly to YouTube? Are you submitting to film festivals and live screenings? Make sure you have an agreement up-front about where you’re allowed to post episodes and if you, the creator and producer, have total authority over the final product and where it ends up. If you end up making a distribution deal, it’s going to be helpful to have signed contracts from your actors giving you the legal authority to sign over the rights to the show and to their performances or work in it.
We’ll talk about this more once we get to the column about promotion, but it’s worth noting early on that even actors with their faces all over your project will be bad at posting about the show to social media. You’re making a web series and your audience is 100% online, so the more people posting about it, the more likely it is to get seen. As such, I recommend having a clause in the contract about how frequently cast and crew are expected to post about the show or about new episodes, and to which platforms. Once again, you can’t expect anyone else, even your lead actors, to take your show as seriously as you do. Sometimes you’re going to have to lay it out for them, especially once the show’s been out of production for a while and they’ve moved on to other projects. There’s a completely understandable promotional fatigue that sets in as you go, which you might even run into yourself, so having set expectations from the very beginning will be incredibly helpful.
Never written a contract before? No problem! Just Google “film contract” and mash up a couple that you find until you’ve got something you’re happy with. The most important thing is that it clearly lays out everything involving expectations, responsibilities, and compensation, so that everyone comes away from the project happy and fulfilled.
Now that you’ve conquered the legalese of contracts, we can finally move into actual pre-production, where we’ll discuss scheduling, having a plan B for everything, and the indescribable beauty of color coding.